If soap operas are the red-headed stepchild of the acting world, horror is that kid’s friend you won’t let come over for dinner. Most know that A-List actors like Kevin Bacon and Johnny Depp got their respective starts in Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
And yet in the exhaustive documentaries Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Monsieurs Bacon and Depp are nowhere to be found. Maybe it was a scheduling conflict (We imagine this conversation with their agents: “make sure I’m busy enough never to have to do something like that ever.“)
However, many A-List actors started off in horror and went on to tremendous Hollywood success. The 12 actors listed below share 31 Oscar nominations and 7 wins among them. So if you’re an aspiring actor or actress, don’t be reticent about getting an ice pick driven through your ear in a horror film. It beats the casting couch, most types of porn and arguably it’s a key resume bullet that’ll be step 1 to eventually hearing “And the winner is (your name here).”
Most know Hollywood’s golden boy from classics such as Gravity, Ocean’s Eleven, The Descendants and uh…Batman and Robin, but what about Return of The Killer Tomatoes?
In 1988, Clooney played Matt Stevens in the long-awaited sequel to 1978’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! In Return, a mulleted Clooney played 80s stock-character #43: the goofy best buddy. While Return may have delivered more laughs than scares, at least Clooney lived to see the credits roll. He fared less well in another 80s horror flick with “Return” in the title, 1987’s Return to Slaughter High, in which his character is dispatched in the first 10 minutes.
Before influencing the hairstyles of an entire nation, Jennifer Aniston was a struggling actress who appeared in a number of short-lived TV series such as the small screen version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Then there was 1993’s Leprechaun. Aniston’s first feature film had her playing against Warwick Davis as the titular mythological creature looking for his stolen pot ‘o gold and offing any that dared get in his way.
The film that launched six sequels, including Leprechaun 4: In Space and Leprechaun in the Hood, may not be a highlight on Jen’s resume but we maintain that it’s far more entertaining than the dismal Vince Vaughn co-starrer The Break-Up.
The ex Mr. Aniston and current ½ of Brangelina also dabbled in horror early in his career. Besides appearing in an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, Pitt also appeared in 1989’s Cutting Class, a “murderer loose in a high school” slasher whodunit.
Pitt plays the formulaic “bad boy” red-herring whom the audience is supposed to suspect is the killer all along before he marches in to save the day. Pitt would later star in a true horror/thriller classic: David Fincher’s masterful Se7en.
One of Jackson’s earliest roles was in the 1990, Troma-distributed urban succubus/vampire flick Def by Temptation. Def, directed by James Bond III (no, not George Lazenby) featured Jackson in a small part as a minister who preaches furious anger and great vengeance. Though his appearance is brief, Jackson makes an indelible impression as only he can in a role that seemed like a dry run for his Oscar-nominated turn as Bible-quoting hitman Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.
In Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, the sixth installment in the series, Paul Rudd appears as the grown-up version of Tommy Doyle, the kid Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie was babysitting in the original. Rudd gets to stand face-to-face with Michael Myers himself and then bash the Shape’s head in with a lead pipe.
Instead of sticking with horror, Rudd went on to play the exact same character (the harried, put-upon salaryman with a goofy streak) in each and every film he subsequently appeared in.
Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger:
We love Leatherface around here. We really do. But Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, originally titled The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is really, really bad. Currently sitting at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, the third Chainsaw sequel was filmed in 1994 but shelved until 1997.
During that time, both future Oscar-winners Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger became big stars, resulting in McConaughey’s agent allegedly pressuring the studio not to give the film a theatrical release. And with good reason; it is a histrionic, disjointed mess. The fact that it was written and directed by Kim Henkel who wrote the original and intended this to be the “true” sequel makes this cinematic abomination all the more egregious. McConaughey is currently in the midst of a career renaissance while Zellweger hasn’t appeared in a film since 2010, and if recent post-plastic surgery photos are any indication, is starting to look a little Leatherface herself.
Arguably Hollywood’s most loved star, double Best Actor Oscar winner Hanks’ first role was in the 1980 Halloween rip-off He Knows You’re Alone. Hanks appeared briefly to expound on the psychology of horror, as a student with a red bandana tied around his neck.
Reportedly, Hanks’ character was supposed to be killed off but the filmmakers deemed the actor too likeable so they allowed him to survive. Later that year, Hanks was appearing in drag on the small screen in Bosom Buddies. Wonder whatever happened to him after that?
Before Sharon Stone appeared in the most paused scene in cinematic history in Basic Instinct, she took a role in Wes Craven’s Hills Have Eyes follow up Deadly Blessing. The 1981 film has to do with an incubus messing things up in an Amish-like community and is a bit of a stinker.
Nonetheless, it does feature a cool scene (which also served as the film’s poster) of Stone eating a spider. Stone cannot feel embarrassed about this one, as her resume also includes the execrable Catwoman and Basic Instinct 2, both Worst Picture Razzie award winners in their respective years.
Another multiple Razzie winner (worst actress for Striptease, G.I. Jane and The Scarlet Letter) is Demi Moore. However, she was also part of the “Brat Pack,” and starred in hits A Few Good Men and Ghost. 1982’s Parasite is a movie she probably wishes would disappear. It features a 19-year-old Moore in her first starring role.
She plays the sidekick to a doctor who created a deadly parasite which is now attached to his stomach. Together, they roam a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to find a way to kill the doctor’s parasite as well as another which has gotten lose and will soon multiply. Originally shown in 3D, Parasite is good, goofy fun.
Before suffering hangovers and being named People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive”, Cooper starred in The Midnight Meat Train. Cooper plays a New York photographer who’s obsessed with tracking down a subway-train serial killer. Based on a short story by Clive Barker, Meat Train has many fans but we’re not among them.
Despite being set in NYC, Meat Train features what appears to be the world’s least used public transit system — LA, it turns out, due to budget constraints. It’s so barren, one could set up a pop-up In-and-Out Burger down there and nobody would notice.
More commuters braved the subways in The Warriors and that was before Gulianification. The cinematography was awful, the blood CGI, and Cooper’s talents went wasted. Great title but a poor movie whose only saving grace is you get to hear UFC fighter Quintin Rampage Jackson quoting Forrest Gump before being offed by Vinnie Jones!
Sadly, The Wolf of Wall Street was not about a Lycanthrope who trades stocks by day and tears throats out by night. Nonetheless, Leonardo Dicaprio too has a horror film on his resume. His film debut was in 1991’s Critters 3. Interestingly, Cary Elwes of Saw fame and The Princess Bride passed on the role of Josh which eventually went to Leo.
In Critters 3, the homicidal extraterrestrial furballs attack a derelict Los Angeles apartment complex. Instead of leaving the building, which would make sense, the tenants, including Leo, try to escape to the roof. Obviously, not all of them make it. This sequel was made on the cheap and is pretty terrible (currently sitting at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Still, we maintain that it was leagues better than Titanic.
Please see our list of Metal Musicians Acting in Horror, people with an embarrassment threshold far lower.
4 thoughts on “12 A-List Actors Who Started in Horror”
Great piece! I didn’t know about half of these people getting their start where they did.May have to watch a few of these…
Thanks! While researching this, we were shocked at how many major actors’ film debuts were in horror. One we didn’t include because it’s just an uncredited cameo in a few brief scenes is Charlize Theron in Children of the Corn 3. Still, another debut!
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No Johnny Depp in nightmare on elm st? Come on
Since most people know that Johnny was in Nightmare and Kevin Bacon was in Friday, we mentioned them in our intro. Instead, we wanted to highlight actors that most didn’t know started in horror.